October 15, 2013 | by Hannah Frank

Strategic Partnerships with Families

DSC_0204Website_Version.jpg“Who is the most influential person in your life?” Over the last few days, my colleague D’Andre and I have asked this question to twenty-seven high school freshmen, ending each Upward Bound interview on a positive note. For many of these students, it was their first interview. For all of them, it was an important one.

Acceptance into Upward Bound, a federally funded college readiness program, could change the trajectory of their lives. For the last six years, Umoja has been providing free tutoring, academic advising, ACT preparation, college trips, and leadership development to Manley Career Academy High School students through Upward Bound. The program’s goal is to walk alongside participants through their four years of high school, boosting academic performance and increasing chances of enrolling and persisting in college. As the program’s Academic Advisor, I coordinate with teachers to ensure that our tutoring is relevant and reaching the Upward Bound students who need it most.

In response to our last interview question, every freshman student first named a family member as the most influential person in their life. They named a mother who keeps them motivated, an auntie whose constant presence and patience bring peace to a household, a father whose wise words ring true, an older cousin who has taken on the role and responsibility of a father figure, or a grandmother whose candor and compassion have laid claim to the student’s heart.

Then they went on to list celebrities, dogs, rap artists, politicians, teachers, professional athletes, and fictional television characters. Fourteen-year-old fantasy and fan culture are very much alive in the students with which we work. They spend their lunch periods listening to pop music on their phones or gushing with friends over a favorite TV show.

Truth is, our students are inundated with influence and information, which often leads to mixed messaging about how to prioritize goals and pursue their future. The world is telling these young people a hundred different things to think about who they are, where they’re going, and what it takes to get there.

On their way to school, our students travel the streets of a community in which less than seven percent of adults hold a bachelor’s degree. Before they arrive at school in the morning, our students have likely crossed streets that divide gang territories, cut corners that host unemployed community members, and passed police cruisers at the ready. But once they pass through the front doors (and metal detectors) of Manley High School, they are told by Umoja staff and other adults that they do in fact have options, and they are expected to grab hold of one of those options and pursue it passionately and persistently. There are two very different depictions of students’ futures played out before their eyes every morning before the first period bell even rings. How do students decide which version to believe?

Umoja seeks to uphold the version wherein our students’ inherent potential is acknowledged and affirmed. We loudly proclaim that their futures are a worthwhile investment, and the world is awaiting the return. However, we cannot do it alone.  The best way we can ensure consistent messaging in our students’ lives is to coordinate with the other people who surround and support them. So Umoja develops strategic partnerships with community members, teachers, counselors, and family members to keep our students on track.

Our organization's name declares our deep commitment to an integrative approach to student development. Umoja is the first of seven principles of Kwanzaa, all of which are built upon communal effort and collective gain. Another of the seven principles, that of Kuumba, or creativity, is written on a Post-it note on my desk as a piece of instant inspiration. Africana scholar Maulana Karenga defines Kuumba as an unwavering commitment to altruistic innovation: “To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.” It is to be strategically collaborative and intentionally creative in our approach to student success.

A critical part of Umoja and Upward Bound’s collaborative, Kuumba-infused strategy is to engage our students’ parents and families. There’s not much we can do to change the messages that celebrities, rap artists, politicians, professional athletes, and fictional television characters are sending to today’s young people. But there is quite a bit that we can do to collaborate with the influences that every one of our prospective Upward Bound freshmen identified as most trusted and most consistent--those mothers, fathers, cousins, aunts, and grandparents they praised in their interviews.

Our students are shaped by these family role models. For Upward Bound staff, our work is shaped by them too. We depend on families to reiterate students’ potential and affirm their purpose. We expect that parents, cousins, siblings, and other relatives will join us in encouraging Upward Bound students to stay focused on their academic success. Through parent meetings, printed calendars, phone calls, class dinners, and college tour chaperone opportunities, Upward Bound staff maintains open lines of communication with families to enable consistent, positive messaging.

I have heard that, on average, we retain information only after hearing it repeated seven times. I will continue to unite with parents to tell our students seven times or more--as many as it takes to drown out voices saying otherwise--that they have the power to pursue postsecondary success. And what’s more, these bright and engaged students hold the power of Umoja and of Kuumba, enabling them to one day “leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”